Brigid O’Dea: ‘I keep laughing, but then the printer jams’

Often it’s not the big things that upset us but the small one like Bukowski’s shoelace

A few weeks ago, I had a fight with a chat bot.

"Was this information useful?" they asked.
"No," I typed, "you are so unhelpful."

"I'm sorry," they replied. "I did not understand. Can you rephrase the question?"
"NO!" I repeated. "YOU ARE SO UNHELPFUL!!!"

My dad, sister and I all have the same printer. We each bought it a year ago, at the start of the pandemic, when people continued to asked us to handwrite our signatures even though the world was working from home. One by one, we recommended the printer to each other, though it didn’t work for any of us, except to fuel the otherwise monotonous chat.


"It keeps spitting out the same page!" we huff.
"It's jammed again!" we moan.
"How can a printer only print PDFs?!" we despair.

We recently recommended the printer to my brother.

And so, the printer jammed once more. My head was sore, my eyes were tired, and I was hungry. I would have done well to leave the problem and return to it later. But exactly because my head was sore, my eyes were tired and I was hungry, I became fixated on it; I needed that sheet of paper that exact minute. My life depended on it.

Heated conversation

I frantically unplugged and replugged any wire I could find, tore at the jammed page, pressed the off button until my index finger whitened, and when that didn’t work, I gave the cursed box a shake. When all my efforts did nothing but further jam the sheet of paper, worsen the pain in my head and turn my cheeks a darker shade of red, I took to the printer’s website in a hot huff. It was there I found myself drawn into the heated conversation with the chat bot, the only customer service channel available to me after my six-month warrantee had expired.

Now, I’m always conscious of being kind and well-mannered to chat assistants. They deal with a lot of frustrated people (like me) and people (like me) who are inept at modern technology.

A number of years ago when I was still living at home with my dad, I had a telephone conversation with an assistant from our internet provider. The woman was directing me to plug our new wi-fi modem into a box that she assured me every household with broadband had. I assured her this box absolutely did not exist in our house. The woman kindly persisted, and despite my frustrated tears, gently suggested I might have a friend who could help. Unfortunately, our conversation was prematurely disabled when I pulled out the phone cord, accidentally mistaking it for an internet cable.

Turns out, we had the box.

Numb to bad news

I justified my outburst with the bot, however, rationalising that a bot is not a human and therefore does not have feelings. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything too rude. Just in case.

In 1950s America, Charles Bukowski wrote a poem, The Shoelace. In it, he writes, with a poetic licence, that it's not the large things that turn a man mad; "Death he's ready for, or murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood . . . no, it's the continuing series of small tragedies . . . not the death of his love but a shoelace that snaps with no time left . . ."

The printer was my shoelace.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve become somewhat numb to bad news. I greet each new government Covid update with weary acceptance. I watch my world shrink and attempt to find the beauty in the monotony of my local 5km. I attempt to be Buddhist about my young adult years idling away. I take month-long migraines on the chin. And resignedly accept new health diagnoses.

I just keep doing my yoga and cooking dinner and laughing when I can.

But then the printer jams.
My doctor's appointment is cancelled.
I'm out of milk.

And suddenly it’s all too much. The months of repressed emotion bubble to the fore. They spill over. I want to throw myself on the floor returning to an infantile state. I want to thrash my limbs. Cry. Can someone just make it better? Except I don’t do that. Instead, I’ll give the printer a kick, with a force measured to ensure I don’t do any real damage, and really politely argue with a digital chat bot. I wear myself out and I go for a nap.

I'm grand, you see.
The pandemic, it's not that bad.

But that printer.